Thursday, 27 December 2012

What would improve this country in 2013? Let's have a rant...

Bombastic Battleaxe has a good old rant:.This is just a brief list of things that I'd like to see happen... Some are big things, some small, some possible, some very difficult:

1. For us in this country, both government and people, to have a realistic understanding of our current place in the world.  We are no longer an internationally significant power, and it is time we gave up posturing on the world stage, and in particular, supporting the world view of the USA.  I acknowledge the manifold virtues of our Brave Troops, (one would get vilified beyond belief if one didn't) but they should not be risking their lives for so little.
     Likewise, we are never going to be a wealthy country again. Our time is past.  It is no use our government telling us that we have to go through short, or even medium-term austerity in order to 'recover'. We need to be taking a hard look at what needs to be done to preserve the fabric of our society into the future, safeguard the vulnerable etc.
2.  No more Page 3 girls in the Sun. For goodness sake, have we not yet got past that?  When did 'feminist' become a dirty word?  It was hard enough being a young girl back in the 60s and 70s. These days, there is even more pressure to have the right shape, the right hair, the right clothes, the right phone - and never a single wisp of body hair.... Sexism is still rife in government, the media, in industry - throughout society - and embraced by the major religions.
3Get rid of these incompetent, money-grabbing private companies who are making millions out of pretending to get work for the jobless. There are not enough jobs available, and the number of low-skilled jobs is falling, and will continue to fall. We choose - rightly - to have a basic welfare safety-net that does not permit our fellow citizens to starve to death on the streets before our eyes, meaning that our menial, low-paid jobs will inevitably be taken by people from other countries who do not have such a safety-net. It would help if people trying to get back into work were not dealt with so stupidly by the benefits system. We need a more flexible system of tapering down benefits for low earners, and it is far too easy to employ people on insecure, short-term, no guaranteed hours contracts. We can't expect people with families to support to put up with conditions like that - of course they will stay on benefits.
     What to do?  Give the work creation money to small enterprises to encourage them to employ more people, restructure the benefits system as above, and above all, do everything possible to skill up the population.
     At the very least, we must ensure that as many people as possible are literate and numerate. It is estimated that around 20% of UK schoolchildren are functionally illiterate and innumerate when they leave school. Despite constant tinkering with the education system, these figures have apparently not changed much in 20 years. I don't know whose fault it is, but it is utterly disgraceful.
4. Stop building on flood plains, stop people paving over their frontages.  Apparently wet weather is here to stay - well, until it gets dry again. I never again want to see some suit from a water company standing in a dried-up reservoir telling us there will have to be a hose-pipe ban, when they have invested absolutely none of their obscene profits into improving water storage, infrastructure, or stopping leaks.
5. Stop hitting on the poor and vulnerable with ill-thought out benefit cuts. Get a fairer tax system. If we do want decent education, an NHS, and to look after the old and vulnerable etc etc. then the money has to come from somewhere, and the better-off have to cough up their share.  We have all been deluded by successive governments into believing that we can have everything we want without paying more tax.  Well, we will have to pay.
     Universal benefits are unsustainable.  No free stuff for better-off pensioners, no child-benefit for better-off mothers etc. Sure, we won't like it, but the good times are over. While we are at it, we need to ensure that the young are saving for their pensions, or society really will collapse.
6. Get the government some decent advisers.  Who on earth are they employing these days? I dislike the Coalition intensely, but it does no-ones credibility any good to utter a load of nonsense one day, and have to change it or retract it the next. Fuel panic and 'jerry-cans in the garage', pasties, grannies, selling off forests, the mess-up around gay marriage - the list goes on. And those are all small things. What about big strategic decisions? Or probable lack of strategy - most 'policy' seems to be addressed to the short-term.
7. Do something about packaging! It is just after Christmas, so my fingers are smarting from wrestling with shrink-wrapped, bubble-packed, heat sealed stuff. There is altogether too much nasty plastic and unnecessary cardboard. It is a waste of resources, and far too much of it is impossible to get into.  How do old people manage? I know this is a small beef compared with the others, but it is so annoying.  Don't get me started on light bulbs...
8. Let something horrible happen to our red-faced, arrogant toff of a Prime Minister, and his nasty, smirking little side-kick, the Chancellor.  I know that won't happen, but one can hope.......

Friday, 14 December 2012

Let's say No to Tesco in Ore

Tesco has applied to open an Express Store in the empty Oddfellows pub in Ore Village. This is a bad business.
Last night we went to the well attended public meeting.  Two people were there from Tesco - one a 'Communications Consultant', and the other a young woman who had been working for Tesco for only six months.  Neither of them put up a remotely convincing performance, and clearly neither had done their homework about the local area.
I have seen places where the addition of a new national chain 'local' store can enhance the quality of shopping and hence the footfall.  Ore is not such a place, for the reasons listed below.
The objections to a Tesco in Ore are clear:
1.  The site is not physically suitable. The old pub is jammed into the 'V' of the junction of the A259 and Fairlight Road, surrounded by double yellow lines, bus stops etc. Deliveries would increase congestion on already very busy roads, and there is no parking provision. Tesco clearly do not expect customers for the new store to arrive by car, but they will try - and park illegally, causing yet more congestion and safety hazards.
2. The community is already very well-served by the existing Ore shops, and by the Co-op. Tesco would sell nothing different or extra.  The Tesco representative said that most Express customers come from within a 500 metre radius of the store - i.e they walk there.  There is only a finite population within 500 metres of Ore Village, and presumably they already use the Ore shops. Logically, then, any trade for the new store will be taken away from existing shops.
3. The 'get out of jail' card of 'creating 20 jobs' has already been played by Tesco. In fact, given that existing stores would either have to lay off staff or close altogether, the net jobs gain would probably be nil.
4. It was conceded that the principal competition for the new store would be the Co-op. However, the Co-op is part of a trusted national chain with high standards of ethics.  Over the years it has built good links with the local community, and above all, it is a good store with an excellent range of goods for its size. It even has a car park, on its flat roof. There is no good reason for allowing Tesco to attack the Co-op through meaningless, cut-throat competition. Also, as a national chain, Tesco is known to have lost its 'edge', and to have taken some poor strategic decisions.  It is not easy to trust what they say.
5. The Tesco representatives were asked what the new store would bring to the community.  All they could come up with was some general flannel about food banks in other stores (using goods donated by customers, I assume), and giving £500.00 to local charities. Even if they had done a shred of research about their proposed catchment area, they would know, for example, that it includes pockets of high social and economic deprivation. It should not have been hard to tailor their flannel accordingly, and showed that for Tesco, commitment to community regeneration does not run deep.
6. Clearly, the local community does not want Tesco. A  petition with nearly 2,000 signatures was handed to the Tesco representative.  It would be interesting to know the population of the stores proposed catchment area.....

However, Tesco does not have to apply for planning permission to use the pub premises, only for minor alterations to the building.  It will be easy for the Planning Committee to accede to Tesco and nod this through.
     Clearly, something has to happen to the empty building, which is now becoming run-down. In the ideal world, it should be a pub again - a community owned cafe-bar?  Or maybe the Library could move into the building?  I know these things cost money, which people do not have....However, Tesco is probably the worst use possible.  It would be better to knock the whole building down and make a car park.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Golden Rules for running a successful small shop

When it comes to shopping, Battleaxe knows her stuff.  In addition to life-long shopping, she also ran a vintage clothes shop in Birmingham, Retro Bizarre.
     This list underpins the choice of the top shops in Hastings and St Leonard's, which appears on Hastings Battleaxe.
1. Advertise opening hours clearly, and stick to them consistently
Make sure opening hours are clearly listed outside the shop, and are consistent with those listed on websites, in local guides etc.  Once hours are listed, stick to them. If staff have to leave the shop unattended during opening hours, avoid the 'Back in five minutes' notice on the door. Instead, the notice should show the time the shop will re-open. If you have changed hours for holiday periods, make sure these changes are advertised clearly and well in advance.
2. Have a sensible pricing strategy
Unless you sell something very necessary and specific, you want to attract browsers into your shop, and to convert browsers into buyers. Enough items in the shop must be at a price that an average browser in the area will readily pay for an impulse buy.. People enjoy buying things, they will feel good about the shop if they do buy something - then they will get to know you and return for more expensive items. We are not talking about running Poundland here, but too much overpriced/expensive stock is a recipe for failure. On the other hand, don't have too much reduced/sale stock constantly on display - people do like a bargain, but it also looks a bit tired and desperate. Make sales infrequent, and special.
3. Control stock
Shops with too little stock on display are daunting, and unappealing to the browser. Too much stock is just as bad.  Too much money is tied up in it, you can't display it properly, and it is confusing for the shopper.  Given too much choice, they often leave with nothing. Vintage shops are often bad at this. If shoppers have to struggle to look through tightly packed rails, clothes get damaged, and people lose heart. Make sure stock on display is renewed/changed round sufficiently often to keep customers interested.
4. Make the shop, and the stock, pleasant and easy for customers to navigate.
If you have a clothes shop, make sure it is warm enough for shoppers to want to try things on.  Have enough mirrors and a comfortable changing space. Display stock so customers can access it.  Make sure everything has a clearly marked price, and for clothes, the size.  Have a seat or two available - and definitely have a 'man creche' if you sell women's clothes. Give people space to browse - for example, don't display cards right by the shop door, or in a narrow passage. Make sure shop, stock and staff are clean, and all smell nice.
5. Ensure staff are 'customer aware'
All customers should be greeted when they enter the shop, and staff should then ascertain if they want something specific, or would prefer to be left to browse. Staff should be knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the stock, friendly, accessible, but not intrusive. Staff should not chat to their colleagues, friends, or on the phone to such an extent that customers feel ignored, or as if they are intruding. Customers like it when staff remember them from previous visits - they will often choose small shops over big chains because of the personal factor.

These things sound simple, and don't cost money. Very often, small shops don't do them. Such shops come and go quickly in areas like Hastings and St Leonard's - the margin between success and failure is small.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Hastings Recycling falls short

What can be so difficult about providing a brown recycling bin?
In Birmingham, where we lived until recently, fortnightly garden waste collections were part of the standard Council service. When we moved to Hastings earlier this year, we called the Council and asked for a brown bin. It would apparently cost £40 per year on top of our council tax, and we were put on a waiting list for a bin to become available.
As, after several months, no bin appeared, I called again. A nice young man said that there were 60 households in front of us on the waiting list, and that 'If we are very lucky' we might get a bin in March 2013, when ‘a few people might give them up’. It appears that there is only limited capacity to collect and process the contents of brown bins.  Realistically, then, it will take years to get through that waiting list - getting a council house would probably be easier.  I was astonished - what kind of service is this? 
In 2010/11, Hastings recycled or composted 26% of its household refuse. This percentage is low when compared with neighbouring Rother, at 44%, and Wealden, at 42%.  The Council website explains these figures are partly due to differing levels of composting household garden waste. As the other areas are less urban with more gardens, they produce more garden waste for recycling, which increases their overall figures.  However, the website does not mention that Brighton and Hove, a much larger and far more densely populated urban area than Hastings, still has an overall higher recycling rate of 28%. 
In July this year the Observer reported that Hastings had the worst fly-tipping record of any authority area in East Sussex.  It is not so bad here where we live in Clive Vale (and where there are many brown bins), but in other parts of town it is common to see unsightly and smelly heaps of garden rubbish just chucked over people's fences on to verges, or open ground.
If people do not have access to a brown bin, the only way of disposing of garden waste is to take it to the tip. That’s all very well for able-bodied people with their own transport, but impossible otherwise.
Thinking about the tip leads me on to my second recycling gripe.
Earlier this year a new household waste recycling tip opened at Freshfields, in St Leonard’s, replacing the interesting but somewhat third world set-up we had before. In the publicity, much is made of the fact that the new facility is cleaner and more modern, there is no queuing, there is no need to climb steps to dump things in skips and so on.  All this is very true and very commendable.  A visit to the new tip is indeed much easier, there is no smell, no tottering mountains of refuse to negotiate, no huge lorries reversing alarmingly across the site.
But there is a problem - no provision for members of the public to access recoverable goods, either via a charity store or, as at the old site, an informal buying-point run by the crusty old tip geezers.  There are plenty of desirable items and, given the range of disposal opportunities around, it always surprises me that people still dump perfectly good stuff at the tip – but they do.
There used to be an old metal container hut full of exciting things – garden items, furniture, kids toys – all sorts.  I couldn’t resist it. Over our first few months in Hastings I acquired: a brand new two-drawer filing cabinet, a set of wooden shelves, a Victorian plant pot stand, three old terracotta chimney pots, a half-barrel planter, other assorted garden containers, a pair of long-handled shears, a dustbin and a big pile of Beano comics for my grand daughter. 
The metal hut disappeared back in May this year.  I asked the blokes why it had gone, and after much grumbling and sucking their teeth, they said that the tip was moving across the road, but that there would be a new charity store, which pleased me.  However, at the new site there is nothing, and I can't even see any facility for buying the bags of soil improver made from our garden waste.

The site is run by Veolia for East Sussex County Council.  I called them up.  Another nice young man told me that there are no plans for a charity store at that tip, even though 'most other facilities have them'.  Why not us?
For me, picking through the items on offer always provided an incentive to go to the tip, and if I found something – a little reward. I am sure that was true for many others also - a good thing in itself.  Most important, though, all the good reusable stuff is now vanishing out of reach into the shiny new skips, just to increase the volume of landfill. Moreover, the stuff could be raising money, either for the Council, or better still, for a charity.  Even a few quid going straight into the pockets of the staff would be better than nothing. 
Finally, enabling things to be recovered, recycled and reused would mean that people could acquire items that they might otherwise struggle to buy.
I am going to start a campaign to get us a tip store.

Visit Hastings Battleaxe for more stories.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Good Scone Guide to Hastings

What can beat a fragrant, warm, fresh scone, thickly spread with butter and tangy jam?  A scone to be eaten, of course, in a cosy, welcoming cafe with a good cuppa on the side. 
A home-made scone strikes me as very Hastings – slightly old-fashioned, very English, individual, unpredictable, crumbly and irregular, a bit crusty, definitely a bit fruity. What better excuse to visit the local cafes and tea-shops?
Talking of fruity, I started my Scone Survey along the Old Town sea-front, and the first thing I saw was a huge glittery silver winkle, standing proudly on a traffic island. It’s the emblem of the Hastings Winkle Club, an old-established fishermen’s benevolent society. Apparently members are required to stand and ‘Winkle Up’ when challenged.  Must be quite a sight.....
This wasn’t getting the scones buttered. The sea-front road is usually jam-packed with folk come to see the sights, visit the pubs and eat Hastings fish and chips.  It is not good scone territory here – too fishy. 
The handsome, bronze-tiled Jerwood Gallery has a glass-balconied gastro-cafe with a great sea view. Possibly it sells hand-created, directional scones along with foodie things like gravadlax and gourmet fishcakes served on little wooden planks. You can call me mean, but I wasn’t paying another entrance fee just to check on their provision of bakery goods. The paintings are well worth a visit, though.
Beside the Jerwood is our first real cafe - Eat @theStade, with big sliding windows opening onto a sunny outdoor seating area.  They do good tea and coffee, nice cakes and home-made biscuits, but when I looked in – no scones on sale.
I headed inland, along the picturesque Old Town High Street, where one of my favourite cafes, The Land of Green Ginger, is tucked away between the half-timbered buildings. It has a little sheltered garden out the back, where green tables are surrounded by plants (and gurgling drainpipes).  I like to look up at the Old Town ‘behind the scenes’ jumble of crooked roofs, old chimneys, tiny windows, balconies and staircases.  Inside, the cafe is popular with Hastings mums, who cram their huge 4 x 4 baby buggies between the tables, making the place a bit hard to negotiate.  The lunchtime food is excellent.  I particularly recommend the twice-baked cheese souffle – but, tragically, on my survey visit – scones were sold out.
I was now getting anxious, and hurried round the corner to George Street.  In good weather this quaint street is full of people sitting outside the waist-line busting selection of cafes, pubs and restaurants. 
A board outside the Green Cafe: ‘We specialise in scones,’ caught my eye, as did another beside it, advertising a genuine Italian Gaggia coffee machine.  I expected a huge shiny hissing monster with ‘Gaggia’ in huge chrome letters across the front, but the discreet modern version just sighed elegantly, while producing excellent coffee. The cafe owner proudly listed four kinds of scone: plain, cheese, sultana, and the variety I chose - cranberry with blueberry.  It was fabulous – warm from the oven, crusty on the top yet soft inside, with a good fruity tang.  While the decor in the cafe is a bit strange – it must have been a butcher’s shop or something, because it is all covered in white tiles - it is friendly, warm and welcoming. High marks here.
I was now too full to visit ‘Cafe Unwind’ across the road, which sells tea with two home-made scones, cream and jam, all for £3.30 per person.  This looked delicious and is excellent value, but I reluctantly had to leave it for another time.
No scone hunting expedition would be complete without a trip up in the lift to the West Hill Cafe.  I never tire of the lifts – the little Victorian cars, the scary view down to the bottom as you rattle slowly up, passing the other car on its way down. Just be careful to avoid queuing behind a huge party of French school-children. 
The terrace of the West Hill Cafe has easily the best views in Hastings, and probably, the best for miles around.  Looking across the lichen-covered roofs of the Old Town you can see the open greenery of the East Hill and the Country Park.  Far below, the boats sit in a row along the fishing beach, and you can watch the ant-size people in the amusement park, on the miniature railway, the go-karts, and bouncing on the trampolines.  Mostly, of course, you can survey a vast expanse of sea, with distant ships processing slowly past.
Despite its unrivalled location, the cafe itself is wonderfully ramshackle – I am astonished it has not been taken over by Jamie Oliver to be turned into a foodie destination.  The plastic tables on the terrace are cracked and rickety, and hopeful seagulls wait on the battered iron railing, clattering their beaks expectantly.  Milk and tea come in those classic English cafe metal jugs and pots that pour their contents all over you and the table.  The tea and coffee is good – if you can get any into the cup. On the day I visited with my husband, scones were on sale, but unfortunately they looked stale, so we shared a very tasty date slice instead.
In Hastings new town, we chose the popular Cafe des Arts in Robertson Street as our scone sampling destination.  It is a social enterprise, staffed by people on the Autistic Spectrum, and sells a variety of interesting pottery and art-work as well as food and drink.  When we arrived, the scones were not quite out of the oven, so we settled down to wait, in big leather armchairs. The coffee was nicely served on fancy white china with a little biscuit on the side.. In a few minutes, a fabulous smell drifted across the room, and a cook emerged from the kitchen with scones on a wire tray. We watched eagerly as two were carefully arranged on a plate with butter and s little pot of jam.  The lady in charge gestured towards us... our mouths watered.  The grave-faced waiter, concentrating hard, picked up the plate and marched straight past us, with never a glance in our direction. He deposited the plate on a table at the farthest end of the cafe and disappeared from view.  When our squawks of distress brought two more scones, the wait was worth it – they were fantastic. Very high marks here, even with the eccentric service.
A brisk walk along the sea-front brings us to St. Leonard’s, and Smith’s Cafe, along Grand Parade just past Warrior Square.  They have a couple of tables outside, but you have to look across the busy main road to see the sea.  A big blackboard on the wall advertises a selection of meals. The cafe has an excellent atmosphere, and I enjoy the eclectic mix of reading matter, including, for example, high-end design magazines, in Italian, dating from the 1990s. Coffee is excellent. When we tried the scones they were fresh, but a little crumbly. It was hard to spread butter and jam without them falling apart.  High marks for the cafe, and good food generally, but only average scones.
Strolling along the front from Smith’s, you pass the fabulous 1930s Art Deco ocean- liner building, Marine Court, and then the shops and art galleries under the Regency colonnades.  These colonnades are part of what is known as Burton St. Leonard’s – Britain’s first planned sea-side town - designed by James and then Decimus Burton in the 1830s.  The Post Office Tearooms cafe is tucked away beside an old Victorian pillar-box, and the fine display of knitted cakes in the window gives a good indication of the quirkiness inside.  Philip and David, who keep the cafe, pride themselves on producing home-cooked, fresh food using local produce.  A fresh scone appeared from the kitchen, fresh, warm, but plain.  “They only produce plain scones at the Ritz”, Philip told me firmly. “If it’s good enough for the Ritz, it’s good enough for us.”  The scone was indeed Ritz standard, but I do like a bit of fruitiness....
So, room for one last scone destination  – a surprise here – the cafe at the Hastings Garden Centre on the Bexhill Road.  Yes, I know it’s a bit out of the area, but it is very handy for a visit to the tip….The cafe itself is not inspiring, and fills up with the most senior of Hastings’ senior citizens, enjoying their cut-price pensioners’ meals.  However, the scones, made fresh every morning, are so exceptionally and outstandingly good that they gave me the original idea for the Scone Guide.  In warm weather, you can sit outside among the plants, and enjoy the company of the friendly tortoiseshell Garden Centre cat.
I know I have left out many excellent places, and that new cafes keep appearing all the time. This piece can only give a flavour of Hastings through a sample of its cafes – and the scones they sell.
What is the final verdict for best scones?  In first place, it must be Hastings Garden Centre.  Joint second, Café des Arts and the Green Café in George Street.